Sunday 21 January 2018

The only-child club

Bigger isn't always better - at least when families are involved. A new study reveals that you'll be happier without siblings. Ailin Quinlan meets three 'onlies'

Happy families: Eleanor O'Neill with her five children (from left) Ethan (8), Nate (2), Marcus (10 months), Isobel (6) and Charlotte (4). Photo: Dave Meehan
Happy families: Eleanor O'Neill with her five children (from left) Ethan (8), Nate (2), Marcus (10 months), Isobel (6) and Charlotte (4). Photo: Dave Meehan
Big is good: Marie Byrne with her daughters Rachel (9) and Jennifer (6). Photo: Dave Meehan
Smaller network: Bishop Michael Burrows. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Natalie Portman believes that she would never have had the opportunity to become an actress if she'd had brothers or sisters. Photo: Getty Images

Sibs; love 'em or hate 'em, you just can't do without 'em - or can you? A new report claims that the fewer siblings children have, the happier they are - and that only-children are the most contented of all.

There are lots of celebrity 'onlies' -- movie stars Natalie Portman, Daniel Radcliffe, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, singer Frank Sinatra, economist Alan Greenspan and former First Lady Laura Bush to name but a few -- but do they have the edge on the rest of us?

Understanding Society, one of the widest-ranging research projects on family life ever conducted in Britain -- over 100,000 people in 40,000 households -- suggests that only-children are the happiest.

Sibling bullying seems to be a problem in larger families -- about 31% of the children surveyed said they were often hit, kicked or pushed by a brother or sister, while others complained of belongings being stolen or being called hurtful names. More than half of all siblings (54%) were involved in bullying in one form or another.

However, only-child Eleanor O'Neill says she really wanted siblings when she was growing up -- a privileged lifestyle and adoring parents just didn't fill the gap.

"I had a very happy childhood but in a way it was lonely as I'd have loved to have had a brother and sister -- I never stopped longing for them," recalls the mother-of-five from Newcastle, Co Dublin.

It didn't happen, because her mum was unable to have more children, and Eleanor's loneliness eventually saw her spend some years at boarding school.

To this day, she believes her solitary childhood impacted on her personality.

"I was very self-sufficient, I didn't need other people's company, and I'm very happy in my own company. As a child I always played for hours by myself with my dolls and cars."

Being an 'only' also influenced her decision to have a big family -- though, the 34-year-old observes, her kids are less independent than she was.

"I notice that my own children tend to need each other or me to play. They're not as self-sufficient -- I think this is because they're quite close in age and are growing up in a big group."

There were some advantages to being the only child, she acknowledges.

"The upside was that I had my own room and my own toys and there were no younger siblings robbing my dolls!

'I had quite a privileged upbringing. I went to a private school, had lovely holidays and we always had a new car."

But now that she's older and has adult responsibilities, she could do with some sibling support.

"Now that my mum has ill health, the responsibility is mine, and there's a lot of pressure and worry.

"I'd love to have siblings to share it with. I feel I'm very much on my own with that. My husband's mother became ill some time ago and all her six children played a part in caring for her and making decisions which was great.

"Even though I had such a great childhood myself, I love the buzz of a big family; it's magic," she says.

Although Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel and Ossary Michael Burrows, who grew up as the only child of elderly parents in a sprawling nine-bedroom rectory in Dundrum, says that as a child he didn't miss siblings -- that did change later on.

"I never longed for siblings until recently. After my parents died, I realised that there was no one to remember my childhood but me.

"You're by yourself; that's how it hits you. There's no one to reminisce with about your childhood.

"I'm very happily married with four children but as the only child of older parents my actual network of relatives is quite small."

Life in a big family doesn't have to be filled with strife, according to mother-of-two Marie Byrne, who grew up in a family of four.

"I was the second youngest in a family of three girls and one boy. I don't remember a lot of fighting or squabbling," recalls Byrne, a part-time school secretary from Dunboyne, Co Meath.

"We all got on quite well as a bunch of kids together -- there must have been some falling out between the four of us at some stage but I don't remember it. We had a very happy childhood.

"My brother was the eldest and he would tease us, particularly myself and my younger sister.

"As we all grew older, we got on even better -- I'm very close to my two sisters to this day."

Irish Independent

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